A Space for Creatives in 21st Century Activism
An Interview with Matthew Shenoda by Negesti Kaudo
What is the role of art, literature, and creative writing in today’s society, especially with concerns to activism, politics and social justice? The intersection of art and activism within the literary and creative writing communities is on the rise with contemporary literature, music, comics and art providing social commentary, but how can writers and artists insert themselves into this conversation and create art that adds to this new platform and mode?
Matthew Shenoda is an Egyptian poet whose works tend to explore his identity and cultural roots in looking at Egyptian and African diasporas and also Arab-African identity. In the past, Shenoda has said what drew him to literature was an “intellectual curiosity to explore history, culture, and diasporic roots.” He is the author of three acclaimed poetry collections: Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press), winner of a 2006 American Book Award; Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (BOA Editions Ltd.), and Tahrir Suite: Poems (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press), which won the 2015 Arab American Book Award.
A founding editor of the African Poetry Book Fund, which promotes and advances the development and publication of poetic arts in collaboration with other organizations that share an interest in African poetic arts, Shenoda has edited Duppy Conqueror: New & Selected Poems by Kwame Dawes. This year, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press will release Bearden’s Odyssey: An Anthology of Poets Responding to the Art of Romare Bearden, edited by Shenoda and Dawes. Matthew Shenoda currently resides in Illinois and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.
For a long time, American culture has seen its activism and political statements complemented by art: visual or written, and with today’s explosion of social media and communicative technology, the general public has access to any and all sorts of activist art (also known as “artivism”) allowing them to interact with and critique these artistic modes and platforms calling for change and justice. Matthew Shenoda was able to provide his insight on what direction the creative communities could begin to migrate and claim a space in the conversation.
Negesti Kaudo: You frequently discuss your Egyptian identity and explore the African and Egyptian diasporas in your writing. Do you identify as an American poet/writer? How has American culture influenced your identity or writing?
Matthew Shenoda: Yes, ultimately I do consider myself an American writer, though maybe it’s not “American” in the way it has been traditionally defined. I am writing almost exclusively in English, in this place called the United States of America, and in the history and trajectory of what has been called American poetry/literature. I think the difference of what I and many other writers do in perhaps challenging this question is to illuminate that there are many Americas, that we are not dealing with a monolith, or adhering to a hegemony, that this place is deeply complex, rich, and contradictory and that the definition of both the place (America) and its writers is not at all singular. In truth the first time a person of color picked up a pen or began to write verse after the nation state of the United States was established was the first moment this idea was challenged. We still have a ways to go, in that America is still defined often as A- the United States and B- as European in origin and influence, but those of us who are thinking more broadly, or frankly are just aware of where we really are, have never and can never accept such a singular view of things. So, yes, I am an American writer, but I am an American writer who is influenced by my own origins Egyptian, African, etc. and am influenced by the global traditions that surround me which include European traditions, but are by no means simply defined by European traditions.
NK: How has your own identity influenced your perspective and opinions on the history of race relations in the United States in concern to African-Americans and immigrants?
MS: Well in a way my own identity is the first thing that influences my perspectives, as is the case for all people. Writers often begin with their own view of the world. It is the start of everything, though it may not be the end. To paraphrase Lucille Clifton, she once said something like, “what some people call political, I just call me at age 16” or whatever. Which is to say that our lived experiences which are undoubtedly racialized and colored (no pun intended) by the histories and present day realities of racism and xenophobia shape the way we see and experience the world and the way we interpret it and write about it. I think a person of color (African- American or immigrant etc.) has to work very hard to try and not see the world that way. You have to do some serious work to try and pretend (and I do think it would be an act of pretending) that the world around you isn’t deeply steeped in the histories of racism and xenophobia. You would have to really disassociate yourself from reality to not see the way race has permeated every systemic structure in this country, and I for one have no interest in living in such a delusion. So one piece of that is an actual and real recognition not only of the histories of African Americans and immigrants, but of the indigenous people of this country as well, those whose land we presently exist on, those who were among the first subjects of the development and conceptualization of race in this hemisphere. So for me, this is a reality, not the only reality, for sure, but a reality nonetheless and one that as a writer I cannot avoid. Now, if I were a different person from a different place, would I not see these things as clearly? Perhaps, but that’s just not who I am.
NK: “Artivism” is explained by M.K Asante as one who “uses artistic talents to fight and struggle against injustice and oppression-by any medium necessary.” How do politics/activism and art intersect in culture? Today’s culture? Why is this effective?
MS: Well, I think I can see this from a few perspectives. In some sense I could certainly argue that all art is a form of activism, even that which seeks not to be. What I mean by that is, all art is in some manner an intervention in a larger conversation about society and humanity and a present moment and so even if it seeks not to deliberately point to a specific topic that is deemed “political” or that is seen as openly unjust, it is still commenting on it, perhaps simply by upholding it or reifying the status quo in some way. But more directly to M.K.’s point and to your question, I think this has always been the case around the globe, that artists have worked in a few different camps, one camp that has often existed has been the camp that upholds the dominant narratives of a given society, and exists as a kind of ornamentation of say, the state or of empire, or to simply anchor a set of dominant narratives and perspectives. Then there has always been another camp of artists who feel an urgent need to trouble those narratives, to show the world in a different light, to ultimately question the world around us in order to gain a more significant understanding of things. There can be no more important thing to do as far as I can see, unless of course you are incredibly pleased and satisfied with the world around you. I am not. I seek more.
So, ultimately this is nothing new, but in the context of the U.S. in particular we saw a significant and brilliant explosion of this kind of art as a “struggle against injustice and oppression-by any medium necessary” in the 1960’s, that dovetailed with various social and political movements. And it is indeed still going on today. I think it is quite effective, actually, in that social movements take on the specific tasks and duties of a moment to fight for change, but art that is coupled with that does two main things. One, it humanizes those moments, in the context of those moments, and that is deeply necessary. Fighting against systemic injustice, most often that of a state or government, is difficult and isolating work and artists can play a particular role in helping the people within and outside those movements see those moments in new ways, to be reminded of why the fight, no matter how hard, is so necessary. The other thing art in this vein does, is document those moments for the future. Art is much slower and one hopes more sustained than the political movements of a given moment, so for me art becomes a really important document of what people have done, thought, felt, and grappled with in the past. So for example, you can look today at the Black Lives Matter Movement and understand what these young people are up to, but if you do that while also studying the Black Arts Movement of the 60’s etc. I think the movement and all involved will become much stronger for it and the artist today will see an example and a lineage to help support them in this present moment.
NK: You wrote a review on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and suggested that it be interpreted as a primer in contrast to a guide to American race relations. Using that as an example, how can readers and the general public insert themselves into the conversation created by “artivists”? Why is it important to have these conversations in the art/literary/writing communities at all?
MS: I don’t know that I can fully say how people should interact with various pieces of art, but the idea of a primer is important to me in recognizing that art is at its core aimed at starting a conversation or getting people to see things differently. It is not as concerned (or in some cases even capable) with solving these major societal issues. Because I see all issues under the umbrellas of “justice” or things deemed “political” as being systemic…